Texas Travel

Don Henley’s Rock-Star Efforts to Save Caddo Lake

By Peter Simek 5.21.18

To truly experience the beauty of Caddo Lake, you have to close your eyes and listen. In the early morning hours, at dusk, or in the middle of the night, the lake comes alive as many of the hundreds of animals that make the lake their home join in a symphony of frog croaks, bird calls, and percussive insect sounds.

Open your eyes and Caddo Lake’s alluring and mysterious landscape is equally enchanting. The bald cypress savannah swamp looks almost prehistoric. It is a tranquil, transporting place. It’s no wonder that it has inspired many people to fight for its continued survival and preservation.

The Protector

Caddo Lake’s most famous protector is none other than the Eagles drummer and front man Don Henley. Henley grew up near the lake in Linden. When he was a boy, his father brought him to Caddo Lake and taught the future rock star how to fish. Those experiences helped instill in Henley a deep connection to Caddo Lake’s mysterious beauty.

Henley has continued to return to the lake throughout his life, bringing his own children to Caddo and teaching them to fish there, too. He has called Caddo Lake his church, a place where natural beauty and peaceful seclusion provide a refuge from the world and a site of spiritual nourishment. In the 1990s, Henley founded the Caddo Lake Institute to study the lake’s delicate ecosystem and help foster its conservation.

The Marshlands

Caddo Lake sits at the center of a fragile ecosystem of waterways. Although these bayous, marshes, swamps, and streams have led to the area being populated for thousands of years, Native American Caddo tribe legend held that the lake itself wasn’t formed until the early 19th century after the New Madrid earthquakes — the largest ever recorded in the continental U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.

The shifting landscape, as well as a massive 100-mile-long logjam in the Red River, created a natural dam that raised water levels of the bayous, streams, and ponds, creating the lake. This swampy, estuarial landscape of swampy bald cypress forest became a fecund ecosystem.

Caddo Lake

The Wildlife

The soggy marshlands and bayous in the region are rich with fish, birds, and animal life. Some of the Spanish moss-covered bald cypress trees in the swamp stand nearly 400 years old, and more than that many species of plants and animals populate the lake’s shores.

The lake is part of a major flyway for songbirds, and some 216 avian species can be spotted there. It is a large breeding ground for wood ducks, prothonotary warblers, and other birds. There are also around 90 reptile and amphibian species around Caddo Lake, and rare and endangered species including peregrine falcons, alligator snapping turtles, and the eastern big-eared bat.

In recent years, paddlefish have been reintroduced to the lake. This rare, ancient species is the oldest in North America and has been living on earth for 350 million years, since before the dinosaurs.

The Settlers

Caddo Lake has long attracted humans as well. Before European and American settlers arrived in Texas, it was an important settlement spot of the Caddo tribe. In the region’s earliest history, Caddo Lake was the site where many people moving westward crossed into Texas.

In the middle of the 19th century, steamboat trade routes were established from Jefferson, Texas, to New Orleans, with ships making their way along Big Cypress Bayou, through Caddo, and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico or up to St. Louis along the Red and Mississippi rivers. For a while, it turned Jefferson into one of the most important inland trading ports in Texas, before the removal of a logjam in the Red River decreased water levels and dried up river travel.

In the 1930s, the lake was one of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ first five projects in Texas, laying the foundation for the lake’s emergence as one of the state’s most beloved parks.

Caddo Lake

The Ecosystem

Today, Caddo Lake’s fragile ecosystem is still vulnerable to encroaching human development, which can impact water flow, lower water levels, pollute drainage waters, and impact wildlife.

A major step toward preserving the lake came when The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,000 acres of Caddo Lake and merged it with the 483-acre Caddo Lake State Park. Henley’s Caddo Lake Institute has been instrumental in working to restore water quality, control invasive species, and conserve land.

Henley’s work began when he heard that developers planned to dredge a canal through Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou to Jefferson, perhaps hoping to restore the town’s 19th-century glory as a port city. Henley formed the Institute to help fight the project and has remained involved ever since, lobbying in Washington, D.C., for support for the lake, raising funds for the Institute through benefit concerts, and helping to establish Caddo Lake as a Wetland of International Importance, under the Ramsar Convention, an honor the lake now shares with the Everglades and the Chesapeake Bay.

Henley’s preservation efforts have had wide-reaching effects, but their goal has always been simple: to keep Caddo Lake the way it is, so that new generations of Texans can grow up discovering its beauties, fishing its murky waters, and losing themselves in one of the country’s most mystical natural settings.

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